Ovetta Wiggins, Washington Post, November 22, 2023
Nearly a month had passed since Israel began attacks in Gaza after the killing and kidnapping of Israelis by Hamas militants, and Torres, the longtime executive director of CASA, a consequential immigrants’ rights group based in Maryland, felt moved to weigh in. He, too, had endured violence in Colombia, his native country.
So on Nov. 6, he called for an immediate cease-fire to “halt the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people” alongside protest photos uploaded to CASA’s accounts. He condemned the use of U.S. tax dollars to “promote the ongoing violence,” and offered his strong support of “the rights of Indigenous peoples and historically colonized nations to reclaim their land.”
For Torres, the statement of fewer than 260 words was a call for peace. But in the politically powerful D.C. suburb of Montgomery County, home to Maryland’s largest Jewish population — it has created anything but.
Within an hour, Torres said, his words came down, but the fallout continued. In the days that followed, a major donor pulled its funding and lawmakers questioned the group’s political activity. Some even called to defund it. The organization, lauded for decades as a champion for the rights of the disenfranchised, now finds itself embroiled in a public, personal fight for its future.
When Torres became director of the group in 1994, it had a budget of less than $500,000 and operated out of a church basement. Now, it’s a multimillion-dollar operation running out of a historic mansion in Langley Park, with branch offices in York, Pa., northern Virginia and Georgia.
It expanded alongside a rising and diversifying immigrant population in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs, focusing initially on obtaining driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
The left-leaning group has also become known for its advocacy. It has joined other progressive groups in fights for policing reform, access to health care and an expansion of tax credits for the working poor.
With Torres at the helm, CASA has successfully fought in Maryland for in-state college tuition for undocumented students, to prohibit local jails from housing detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and to keep police from asking people about their immigration status during traffic stops and investigations.
To help pay for the services CASA provides, members pay dues and the organization has built relationships with state and local governments, which cover about a third of its annual funding. The rest largely comes from philanthropic partners, including foundations and corporations. Among them is the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which has given CASA $5 million over 16 years, including capital grants for two buildings that bear the name of the foundation’s founders.
With the posts, Torres inserted CASA into what has become an increasingly bitter debate that has played out across college campuses, on social media and among Democratic voters over the conflict and the United States’ response to it. President Biden has come under fire from liberal members of his party for the administration’s support for the Israeli military operation. And as the war continues, recent polls show a splintering in the party with young voters and voters of color increasingly expressing more sympathy with Palestinians.
CASA’s statement struck a softer tone than other recent public statements in Maryland that have elicited public condemnation.
The Maryland attorney general on Tuesday suspended Zainab Chaudry, the director of the Maryland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, from her seat on the state’s Commission on Hate Crime Response and Prevention over her social media posts.
In one, Chaudry directly compared Israel to Nazi Germany — a juxtaposition that is widely seen as antisemitic — with the caption “That moment when you become what you hated most.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine placed Darren Klugman, a doctor and medical school professor, on leave following a series of vitriolic anti-Palestinian social media posts.
Montgomery County Council Vice President Andrew Friedson (D) said the statement from Torres showed a “divisive disregard” for the Jewish community in Maryland, which experienced nearly a doubling of reported antisemitic incidents between 2020 and 2021.
He wrote in a response to Torres that, by denying Jews’ historical connections to the region that includes Israel and not recognizing Jews of color, “CASA inexplicably failed to recognize the connection so many Jews have to CASA’s mission and to their own homeland as a people who have been systematically persecuted and forced to flee countless countries for over 2,000 years.”
After receiving calls from constituents, the Montgomery County delegation to Maryland’s state Senate told Torres in a statement that his words were “hurtful, divisive and antisemitic.”
Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), who chairs the delegation and helped craft the letter, said Torres displayed “a complete and total lack of understanding and knowledge of the complexities of the Middle East, the history of the Middle East, the history of both the Jewish people and antisemitism in its myriad forms.”
Two days after Torres’s post, Kramer and his colleagues threatened CASA with the possibility of losing its state funding in the letter.
The services it provides could be offered by organizations other than CASA, he said in an interview, adding the group should search its soul for whether it wants to stick to its mission or “start participating in world politics on issues that they clearly have no understanding about.”